By Brian Carr Smith
Note: This account was written in early 1997 so information will have changed.
Longtime Communist leader Enver Hoxha is dead, the socialist slogans are gone, and the veil of communism has been removed in what used to be perhaps the world's most repressive Stalinist dictatorship. What has emerged is a beautifully unique Mediterranean culture, traditional and proud, but still reeling from the shocks freedom and capitalism have dealt.
Just a short distance away, tens of thousands of American and European tourists are funneled through the profit mill of Corfu town each summer, most of them totally unaware that the mountains they see on the horizon are Albanian. Just an hour and a half by boat (about $8) lies the seat of Albania's southernmost province, its most important beach resort (Albanian-style, mind you)...and more culture and history than you can find in all of Corfu island.
At Corfu town's new harbor I already sensed the tension of this adventure to the East. Greek customs grilled me with questions as to the purpose of my visit to Albania. There have been a number of border incidents between Greece and Albania (Greece claims that the entire southern half of Albania belongs to it), and there have been some problems with the hordes of Albanian migrant workers now living in Greece. After a few moments of scrutiny of my passport and a glance at my rucksack and determined face, the border guard shrugged his shoulders and pointed to my boat.
The sturdy old Soviet-made ex-Albanian-navy cruiser, "Mimosa," is now painted white and blue and flies the Honduran flag. It shuttles passengers and cars, building materials and electronics back and forth three times daily.
The ship's captain, Pilo Andoni, has a certain bearing about him befitting perhaps more than a ferry captain. He told me that in the communist period he had been a colonel in the Albanian navy. He had also been abroad in 1967 — illegal for Albanian civilians. On his return he was warned not to speak about anything he had seen. That's when he knew Albania had been led astray, but, for the sake of his family, he followed instructions and motioned to me how he had zipped his lips shut, not even confiding in his wife.
As we approached the port at Sarande, the communist-style apartment blocks were the first thing I noticed. They form a huge eyesore on the west side of town. As we drew nearer, the palm-lined esplanade, and the town's original communist- and still state-run Hotel Butrint came into view. A bullhorn on a tower shouted instructions to the boat's passengers. The gangplank went out and armed soldiers and police boarded the boat. Passports were stamped and redistributed. I told the border guard, wearing a neatly pressed new uniform and cap, "Fallemenderit" — Albanian for "thank you" — and he smiled as I walked off the boat.
Sarande is rough at the edges — very rough. Something is being built on every bare patch of land — mostly an abundance of new cafe/bars and mini-hotels built with the earnings of expatriate Albanians. I peeked into one such recently opened establishment, the Three Roses cafe, and asked the owner, Quelpiri, about private rooms. He disappeared to the back for about 10 minutes, then reemerged with a smile, grabbed my arm as Albanian men do, and said, "Follow me."
We walked through town, past kiosks selling soap and vegetables and lots filled with concrete blocks, iron rods, and trash, until we reached a half-completed house of bricks and concrete. Quelpiri explained, "This is the house of my middle-school teacher, and it doesn't look so good on the outside, but I think on the inside it's quite nice." A little old man with a toothless grin tottered out, Quelpiri said goodbye, and I was shown to my room.
Inside was a tiled, sparkling clean double room, with a private bath and shower complete with its own hot-water tank. Even three years ago, rooms for rent — let alone those with hot-water showers — were unheard of in Albania, and water came on only one hour in the morning and one hour at night. Now the technology to solve these problems is one of Albania's favorite imports from Greece. The price for the room? About $10 for single or double occupancy.
Accommodations in Sarande
There are also plenty of other small hotel options, and one is as good as the next, but addresses are useless here. Albanians prefer landmarks to street names. Nice doubles in new hotels with balconies over the esplanade and views of the port and Corfu go for about $20.
For those nostalgic for the old days of central planning, the Albturist Hotel Butrint offers a peek into the past. Elevators often don't work and theft is said to be a problem on the first floor, but prices have been stable for years. The old two-tiered system means foreigners pay $30 for a double with shared bath and $45 for a double with private bath. Albanians pay about 1/20 those prices. But prices in the bar are the same for everyone: three espressos and three Albanian "Konjak Extras" for two friends and myself cost me 150 leke or about $1.50. The bar is worth a visit if only to sit in the funny red furry chairs.
Bardha, who works at the front desk, is a former English teacher and rents out rooms in her nice home a few blocks away. And in the same area, Wilma Goudappel, an Albanian-speaking Australian woman who has lived in Albania since 1991, runs Villa Kaoni, the poshest pension in town. The spacious, stately old manor was where Kruschev stayed during a visit to the country in 1959, and it now hosts important dignitaries when they pass through town. Singles cost $35, doubles are $50, all with shared bath. Laundry service available. Reservations at Corfu tel. (30) 94 348921, fax (30) 661 43267.
Excursions from Sarande:
Butrint, Gjirokaster, and Qeparo
Sarande is in itself an interesting destination, but it's perhaps too big and too close to Greece to give the traveler a sense of the real Albania. Albania is, after all, one of the world's most rural nations, with nearly 70% of its people living in the countryside or in small villages.
To get out of town, I arranged to join one of the two day trips coming from Corfu (Petrakis Tours, 9 Venizelou St., New Port, Corfu, tel. 0661/36797). Tours focus on the archaeological site at Butrint (a 45-minute bus ride south of Sarande). A settlement inhabited from the time of the ancient Greeks and the ancestors of the modern-day Albanians (the Illyrians), Butrint was lived in, improved, and added to all the way through to the Venetian occupation, after which it was abandoned in the early 19th century. The incredibly well-preserved 1,500 seat Greek-style theatre alone is worth the visit. Spiro, our guide, a minority ethnic Greek — but with an Albanian mentality," as he put it — speaks 10 languages. He flawlessly narrated our journey to and from the site with practical information not only about the ruins and sights, but also about Albanian society and culture in fast-forward English and German. Take notes or the info will be in one ear and out the other.
In the afternoon you'll go to lunch in Sarande, with Albanian folk songs accompanying your meal. Then you'll visit the bubbly blue springs of "The Blue Eye." Back Door travelers would probably rather nose around Sarande for the remaining two hours before the ferry leaves, if they're visiting as just a one-day trip.
Another company — run by Wilma of the Villa Kaoni and Albanian partner Ani Tare — also visits Butrint and spends a little more time there, before a pleasant picnic lunch and a visit to the Mesopotamian Byzantine church (Corfu tel. 30/94 348921, fax 30/661 43267). Wilma's tour may be a little more comfortable for those feeling a bit skittish about their first dip into Albania, and she will gladly take independent travelers already staying in Sarande along on her day tours for $30 per person. Both tours cost about $30 per person for charter boat transportation plus $30 each for land expenses (including lunch). Wilma's tours run only Tuesday and Saturday; Petakis tours are daily.
A one-and-a-half-hour bus ride away from Sarande is the "museum city" of Gjirokaster, one of two cities remaining in Albania with traditional architecture, heavy on the Ottoman influence. The Ottomans were only finally removed from Albanian soil in 1911, ending more than 500 years of Turkish rule. Freedom of religion was renewed in 1991 after Enver Hoxha's 1967 declaration that Albania had become the world's first officially atheist state. During the intervening years most of the country's mosques and churches were demolished, but Gjirokaster's fine mosque survives, just one of the town's many treasures preserved from the time before communism. (Today, 65% of Albanians are Muslim.)
Four buses a day wind their way up through the mountains on the way to Gjirokaster from Sarande's central bus station (in the middle of town, two blocks up from the waterfront, departure times posted on wall above buses). Travel by bus in Albania costs roughly 1 lek per kilometer. The trip to Gjirokaster costs 100 leke or $1, and it is still very uncommon for foreigners to ride.
The bus passes many little mountain villages, olive groves, and mandarin orchards. Toward the summit the only thing you will see is an occasional stoic shepherd by the side of the road, tending his flock and watching the world go by. The slow and winding descent into the Drino River valley below greets travelers with views of the 6,000-foot-tall rocky mountain walls on the opposite side of the valley and the green collective farms below, pockmarked by thousands of concrete one-man bunkers. This valley leads to Greece, and at the height of Albania's cold-war paranoia in the late '60's and early '70's, 700,000 bunkers were constructed through the country to protect against invasion. On the final stretch towards Gjirokaster a handful of pretty little white Greek minority villages climb the valley walls on the left side of the road.
From the road where the bus drops its passengers off, climb uphill along the muddy roads to the cobblestoned town center. Look for the minaret of the mosque and take a peek in. Pay special attention to the kilims, Arabic prayers on the walls, and the fine arches and dome. The lone white-bearded mullah nods and smiles appreciatively as you leave a donation at the door. Across the street there's more action at the Greek Consulate. Hundreds of Albanian men mill about each morning, visa applications in hand, hoping for a chance to travel south to their more prosperous neighbor for work. The average Albanian worker makes $60-100 a month; in Greece, Albanians can make 10 times that.
Continue up the hill. On the left, perched atop, is the town's imposing fortress dating from the sixth century. It's a great spot from which to view the town and valley (open 8-12, 16-18, Wed.-Sun.). Walk 100 meters, veer right, and on the lefthand side is Haxhi Kotoni's B&B. Beds are $15 and the Kotonis are very hospitable and friendly, renting Gjirokaster's first private rooms in 1993. Everyone knows him and his family, but beware imposters eager to get into this lucrative profession. Fantastic multiple course meals, too big to finish, cost $3. Ask Haxhi to teach you how to pronounce the name of his country during dinner. Albania is call "Shqiperia" in Albanian and foreigners can never get it right. It will set the tone for entertaining conversation all evening.
Down the street is the Ethnographic Museum (in the house where Enver Hoxha spent his youth). The museum is the best place for an introduction to Albanian folk culture. Deshira, the curator, receives few visitors and will be happy to narrate your visit as well as educate you on the current Albanian social situation (8-14 Wed.-Sun., Deshira will open in the afternoon if you call her at home: tel 3763; admission 100 leke or $1).
A converted East German flatbed truck, with a creaky wooden cabin added to the back, makes two three-hour journeys from Sarande daily, through the mountains along the coast to Borsh (150 Lek, $1.50). These hills grow grapes along with the ubiquitous olives. While grapes are harvested to distill into Albanian moonshine — "Raki" — olives on collective farms remain on the trees and fall to the ground — the men who used to work these fields have all gone to Greece. Taxis make the journey in half the time. $15-20 is reasonable; pay no more.
In the middle of Borsh is a fantastic cafe under which flows a rushing river down to the Ionian Sea far below. The cafe is the best spot for socializing in the area and people come here from all of the neighboring villages to spend their free time. Built by political prisoners who had formerly been engineers and construction workers, it seems as if they must have done such a good job on the building and manmade falls in the back simply to delay their impending return to jail cells. Notice the words "PARTI-ENVER" on the opposing hill face in stones, and imagine a time when it was impossible to escape a reminder of where you were and the ideological obligations that implied.
Two miles down the road, around the next hill and next to the sea, is the small village of Qeparo. This small coastal village has a pebbly beach, a small old town up the hill, and a bunch of homes that rent rooms to foreigners for $10 a night. Ask for Polo and Tefta's house, and have a local take you there. Ask ebullient Tefta about the communist era and if life is nicer now — the answer may surprise you.
The EU funds visits here by tourist development specialists, and package tours bring adventurous Brits here for beach holidays. A walk along the pebble beach is pleasant. Check out the festively designed bunkers painted by peacenik kids.
If you've made it this far, you deserve this R&R. Linger on the beach in Qeparo or the numerous other sandy beaches in the area.
Before deciding whether to travel to Albania, read the current Consular Information Sheet on the US State Department's website. For an overview of the country and links to recent news, see the BBC's website. To ask questions of other travelers who may have recently traveled to Albania, go to Lonely Planet's online forum. See what English-speaking Albanians have to say.
It is advisable to dress modestly in earth tones, and pack light to avoid undue attention. Most Albanians go inside after about 9 or 9:30 PM and so should you; it's felt that only ne'er-do-wells wander about after that time.
The US dollar is often the currency of choice in Albania; travelers' checks are virtually unheard of. American Express is usually accepted by larger hotels, while Visa and Mastercard use is not as widespread.
Besides their own native language (Shqip), you may be able to communicate English or Italian. Older locals may speak Russian. In the south, you'll encounter Greek.